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BUSH: Back to school in 2020 will be anything but normal

BUSH: Back to school in 2020 will be anything but normal

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COVID-19 has made 2020 the strangest year in my lifetime.

If you think using a political crowbar to force schools to reopen with no real plan to mitigate a virus that is still very much a problem is going to make it more normal, I've got news for you.

All South Dakota high school sports are starting on time. That's what people want. I won't lie. It has been nice to stand in foul territory with a camera and have my biggest concern be that they are taking a full round of infield as the last flickers of daylight slip away.

We're a weird bunch. Instead of data and science, we are relying on political beliefs and boredom to determine when normal activity should resume. We're hearing that about 75-100 staff members won't return if Rapid City Schools resume in-person classes. I'm sure a lot of parents will opt for distance learning too.

I have two sons who both enjoyed and excelled at distance learning when Gov. Kristi Noem shut down all schools early this spring.

One might not mind sticking with it. The other wants to resume his activities. I know that conversation is taking place in thousands of homes across the city. Students want to get back to football, volleyball, band, theater, or any number of other activities that you just can't do on a ZOOM call. The high schooler who wants to return is used to wearing a mask at work. He is more than willing to do it if it means getting school back to normal.

Even though my family is pretty healthy - even with the hours I work, I am approaching the 20th anniversary of the last workday I missed due to illness - this disease isn't something any of us have ever encountered. It is a blessing and a curse that about 80 percent of the people who contract the virus show minor or no symptoms. It is a blessing because a lot more people won't get really sick. It is a curse because everyone assumes they will be in the 80 percent even though the 20 percent still exists.

It gives some peace to parents of students that people over 60 make up about 16 percent of the cases in South Dakota and 76 percent of the deaths. That statistic is less reassuring for teachers a couple of years away from retirement who have to literally risk their lives to try to remain financially stable.

I will be very interested in how our austere friends who don't see the pandemic as a big threat handle what seems to be an inevitable reality. Kids will get sick. No one under the age of 19 has died from COVID-19 illness in South Dakota. However, is that because they won't or because schools were closed before there were a dozen cases in Pennington County?

We don't know yet, but that experiment is about to be completed. What is the "back to school" backers' appetite for teachers being admitted to ICU or worse? It was tragic last spring when a Central High School teacher died from a non-pandemic cause. How will people feel if two or three teachers become seriously ill? What if it is 12? We don't know how the school year is going to go.

Since we are going full speed with few guardrails with hope as the prevailing strategy, we can only redouble that hope that crowding kids into small classrooms for hours each day won't lead to outbreaks. Even Pollyanna thinks that outlook is a bit too rosy.

What happens with sports? If two girls on a volleyball team test positive, do they have to quarantine themselves? What if the state tournament is that week? What happens when Rapid City Central makes a playoff run and their quarterback and tailback test positive? Are games delayed?

I have seen what outbreaks can do to sports - especially in small towns. I covered a basketball game during a flu outbreak. Even including all of their freshmen, a girls' team could only suit up seven players. To make it worse, one of the young players fouled out in the first half. Another fouled out in the third period. With just five girls left standing, one rolled an ankle and couldn't continue and they finished with four players. It was not ideal for anyone involved.

Even before Dr. Anthony Fauci could throw out the first pitch, Washington Nationals star Juan Soto tested positive for coronavirus and missed the season opener. This won't be the last story of this type.

I don't envy school board members right now - anytime for that matter, but especially now. These are tough decisions. It has been weird to see people meeting in virtual, socially-distant settings voting to refill the schools with little germ factories and those tasked with educating them.

Watching this virus run through New York City, Florida, California and Georgia, it doesn't appear to have a partisan affiliation and it didn't disappear when the weather warmed up. I'm sure opening schools will have an effect. Israel struggled with reopening schools. In some European countries, the process has led to starts and stops.

Hopefully, taking some precautions is enough to avoid scary situations. Hope is a bad strategy. I wish it wasn't all we had.

Kent Bush is the editor of the Rapid City Journal. Reach him at

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